Church Of England Clearly Reluctant To Accept Abolition Of Blasphemy Laws

The archbishops of the Church of England were criticised today for equivocating over the abolition of blasphemy.

The National Secular Society – which has been campaigning for an end to the blasphemy laws for 140 years, said that they were no longer sustainable and that the Government was right to proceed with their abolition. The matter is scheduled for debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday.

The archbishops’ response to Government consultation on blasphemy makes clear that they are reluctant to let go of the law that uniquely protects the Christian religion. They set down conditions for the abolition that the Government is in no position to give and demand plaintively for the Government to justify why it is making the change now. Yet the abolition is now unstoppable as the Government has tabled its own amendment to abolish blasphemy.

Keith Porteous Wood, Executive Director of the National Secular Society said: “It looks very much from the archbishops’ response that, if they could veto the abolition of blasphemy now, they would do so. For them it will always be a case of “it is not yet time”. Their underlying concern is its likely “interpretation as a secularising move”, a further undermining of their position as the Established Church. This has already happened in practice through seven decades of declining attendance.

“The archbishops ‘express serious reservations about the wisdom of legislating at this moment’. The answer is simple enough for even the archbishops to understand: opposition amendments have been tabled in both Houses that would almost certainly be passed whatever the Government does. If the Government heeds the archbishops’ ‘wisdom’ and withdraws its amendment, the abolition would proceed anyway which would be even more embarrassing for them and the Government too.

“The Government’s hand has been forced already by a Commons amendment by Dr Evan Harris (an NSS Honorary Associate) and seemingly in the Lords through an amendment by Lord Avebury.

“Christianity is now just one idea in an increasingly diverse market place of ideas. There can be no justification for it – or any other religion or ideology – having special protection from criticism or satire. We are not surprised that the archbishops are reluctant to let go of the privilege of having their beliefs protected, but blasphemy is an anachronism in Britain and a lethal menace in other parts of the world. It is a concept that is well past its sell-by date and the Government should not hesitate to abolish it.

“The blasphemy laws are uncertain, unlimited in penalty and a House of Lords Committee has concluded that they are almost certainly unsustainable following the passage of the Human Rights Act. They are also discriminatory in that they privilege Christianity alone, and the antithesis of freedom of expression - about which the archbishops show they care very little indeed. It seems incredible that the Church seems unable to recognise the necessity for remedying these flaws now, especially at a time when blasphemy has become so infamous on the international stage, for example over the Mohammed teddy bear debacle. How can the UK lecture other countries about their blasphemy laws with any authority when, if the Church had its way, it would retain blasphemy at home?

“Religiously aggravated insulting behaviour carries a draconian seven year prison sentence as a maximum penalty. And the archbishops clearly want more. We also call on the Government not to be railroaded by the archbishops into replacing the blasphemy laws with something even more undesirable.”

3 March 2008